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A Tribute to Dr Jim Frazier, OAM ACS DSC.hc by Christine Calabria

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

✦ James Albert Frazier, our Jim, passed away peacefully after a short illness late in the evening of Saturday September 16, 2022, just short of his 82nd birthday.


Famous world-wide for the invention of the Panavision Frazier lens system, a miracle combination of glass that gave an unlimited depth of field, he single-handedly changed the way we see the world. I am sure that Sir David Attenborough would agree, as well as Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and many more of the world’s best film makers, who have used his lenses.

Jim Frazier, a quiet country boy with a love of beasts and bugs who great up to be a highly respected cinematographer
Jim Frazier: highly respected cinematographer, photographer, environmentalist and innovative inventor

But how did this ‘boy from the bush’, a quiet country boy with a love of beasts and bugs, grow up to be a highly respected cinematographer, photographer, environmentalist, maker of wildlife documentaries and innovative inventor.

Growing up in Armidale in country New South Wales, he attended school for the minimum number of years then trained as a cabinetmaker, following in his dad’s footsteps, leading to a position at the University of New England. This was where, fortuitously, he met Densey Clyne, thus becoming a cinematographer. He first met Densey when he showed her where a threatened species of frog lived in the Armidale area. Sometime after that, he moved with his family to Sydney. Densey assisted in finding them a place to live. This is when Jim’s life changed forever.


In Jim’s words:

“One day, in 1971, while I was visiting Densey at her home in Turramurra, two friends were visiting, who effectively changed the course of our lives. They were Vincent Serventy, who made Australia’s first wildlife television travel documentaries, Shell’s Australia, and Robert Raymond, of Four Corners fame.

"Their mission was to convince Densey to contribute to a planned series of films they were making called The Australian Ark. Vincent and Raymond were particularly interested in Densey’s expertise (regarded as an Australian expert in the field of Entomology) with spiders and insects. While Densey was an exceptional photographer, she argued with the pair that she knew nothing about cinematography and, in any case, the equipment was too heavy for her. At that point, I intervened and said to Densey, “We could have a go together. I can handle the heavy equipment and, anyway, I would love to learn cinematography.”

"Vincent was generous enough to give us a lot of film and an old wind-up Bolex movie camera. I eagerly read and re-read the instruction manual and, with Densey’s help, started to film a few special spiders. In essence, Densey taught me the fine art of photography.”


Three friends enjoying each others company, Densey Clyne, David Attenborough and Jim Frazier
"David cracked a joke!" - Densey Clyne, Sir David Attenborough and Jim

The beginning that started a partnership


That fortuitous encounter was the beginning of the working relationship that launched Mantis Wildlife Films and started a partnership that lasted for twenty-eight years. They made an award-winning film together about spiders, Aliens Among Us, which impressed the BBC and opened doors, particularly to filming for Sir David Attenborough’s three major series – Life on Earth, The Trials of Life and The Living Planet.


When Jim first heard David Attenborough’s name mentioned, his response was, “Who the hell is David Attenborough?”

He soon found out.

Mantis’s contribution to these was considerable. For instance, a thirteenth of the complete production of The Trials of Life was Mantis Wildlife Film’s production. As Mantis Wildlife Films, they travelled the world, filming wildlife documentaries for Sir David Attenborough and many others.

Sir David Attenborough demonstrating the use of the Deep Focus Lens
Sir David Attenborough: photo taken with the deep focus lens

An amazing coincidence, a ‘fogged-up’ camera lens, whilst filming for Sir David Attenborough in Borneo, led to Jim’s eventual discovery and invention of the Panavision/Frazier Lens System that has revolutionised the international film industry. An ingenious lens, providing greatly extended depth of field and the ability to have both the foreground and background in focus.



Leading filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg (every one of his films since Jurassic Park), and James Cameron continue to use this lens. Directors used the lens system on the sets of Titanic, Tomorrow Never Dies, Mission Impossible, Amistad, Alien Resurrection, Godzilla and Stuart Little 2, in addition to television commercials.


Jim Frazier excelled at photography, difficulties never a problem
Difficult setups not a problem for Jim

Jim won a Technical Oscar for this lens system. Over the years, he also achieved at least forty other national and international awards, including an Emmy, for his wildlife cinematography, as well as an honorary doctorate, and an OAM.

Jim Frazier bent the laws of physics and create a lens system that would change photography forever
Jim's philosophy is where there's a will there's a way!

Along the way, he was privileged to work with so many other great minds in the industry


Musicians, filmmakers, journalists, inventors, and ‘movers and shakers’ in the industry. Their stories are related in his autobiography.

In his later years, his passions shifted. Through sheer coincidence, he discovered growing crystals on glass plates, using a variety of chemicals. He created crystal artworks, by manipulating the crystals with fine brushes, bamboo skewers and anything else that came to hand.

A discovery growing crystals on glass plates turned to a passion.
Jim with one of his crystal glasses

Once growth was complete, he photographed extreme closeup shots of sections of the glass plates, backlit with coloured lights that resulted in unique, ethereal, out-of-this-world, scenic art photography. People all over the world own them, including celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton.

Jim produced a full-colour coffee table book Butterflies on my Mind, with my editorial and layout assistance, which focused on the live butterflies and moths “in flight” that he captured, first in a net then on camera in his studio. Jim produced all the effects ‘in-camera’, often with lenses he created just for a specific shot.

Photograph by Dr Jim Frazier OAM, from his book "Butterflies on my Mind".
Photograph by Dr Jim Frazier OAM, from his book "Butterflies on my Mind".

His final and ongoing passion was the devastation of our environment. To bring this devastation of the Earth to our attention, Jim wanted to produce a global blockbuster feature film Symphony of the Earth. He was not able to see this through to fruition, but an enthusiastic and talented group of people headed up by Rachel Dunn, the Director of this production, continued the task.

Rachel explains:

"Jim came up to me many years ago and told me about a vision that he had for the Earth; to give all animals on the earth a voice. He wanted to create an incredible feature film that highlights all the voices of the world. Jim and I have been working together for many years on refining that story.

Jim described what his vision for it was."

In Jim’s own words:

"The project involves filming animals making their musical sounds, giving those sounds to selected composers, who will then assemble and arrange them into a more acceptable and recognisable human form. The filmmaker will use the voices of the animals in two ways; firstly, by adding their calls to the various singers as backing and support for the artist’s own band. Secondly, by the creation of musical compositions made up using only animal sounds. So, Symphony of the Earth becomes an entertaining musical spectacular, a blockbuster feature film."

The team behind Symphony of the Earth will continue developing the film as Jim’s legacy. Jim was delighted, because, just a few weeks ago, they produced a trailer for Symphony of the Earth, and it is having a promising reaction in the film production community.

Jim was passionate about promoting the need for greater environmental protection


For the past couple of decades, he enjoyed living with his partner, Helen, on a property called “Tanglewood”, at Bootawa, near Taree, where they created a bird and butterfly habitat. He described it in a video production by the ABC last year as a "place of peace and quiescence" where he wanted to spend his final years. Even though, in recent weeks, the property was sold, and they were due to leave in October, he still commented to me that he wanted to die at “Tanglewood”.

Helen and Jim together on their property Tanglewood
Helen and Jim at their property “Tanglewood”, Bootawa, Taree, NSW

He was an innovative genius. His Frazier Lens System was revolutionary. His cinematography and photography always pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved ‘in-camera’. He never used a computer editing program. When we were collating his autobiography, he wanted me to teach him how to use Photoshop and I refused.

In 2021, I spent ten months of intense proofreading, editing, rewriting, assembling of text, book design and then adjustment of over 700 images to produce his autobiography – Through the Lens – a Macro View of Jim Frazier – Making the Possible Impossible. Working with Jim was an amazing, crazy, intense and very productive time. We became very close, and I will always treasure that.

This Aussie larrikin achieved numerous goals in his life, many of them unexpected, but all had a lasting impact on the world around him. His last goal was Symphony of the Earth, and I think he died in peace because he felt that the project would now succeed. He knew he had achieved what he had set out to achieve. For several practical reasons, he decided it was time to sell his beloved “Tanglewood”, but, in his heart, he didn’t want to leave, and he didn’t.


His life and work will survive him and be a continuing legacy to his foresight, his innovative creations, his love for the environment, and his efforts to improve it.


The thing about Jim is he made the impossible... possible.


All photos supplied by Christine Calabria

 

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